Building the future and preserving the past

Poster showing a different kind of preservation: Greenhalgh's Preserves, COPY 1/245 (152)

A different kind of preservation: Greenhalgh’s Preserves, COPY 1/245 (152)

About this time, seven years ago, the foundations of an exciting new project were being laid here at The National Archives. The Digital Continuity Project initially arose out of our concerns about the survival of digital information. Digital information is by its very nature vulnerable. Would it survive long enough to be transferred to The National Archives for preservation? Even if it did survive would we be able to identify what is of historical value and physically transfer and present it to our users?

My aim in this blog post is to remind us about the true meaning and importance of digital continuity, the achievements of the project and where we are today.

Digital continuity is…

the ability to use digital information in the way that you need for as long as you need.

Information is ‘usable’ if you can find, open, work with, understand and trust it.

Digital continuity is not…

…just about the technology – early ideas centred around the provision of a technological solution but there was a quick realisation that it was more about cultural change across government and promoting the effective management of digital information. Digital continuity is really just good digital information management.

…just about transferring records to The National Archives – government departments need to be able find, open, work with, understand and trust their information in order to carry out their business functions in an efficient and effective manner and to comply with legislation such as the FOI and Data Protection Acts and rules around information assurance and transparency.

Key elements of digital continuity

We developed a four stage process for managing digital continuity:

  1. Plan for action – senior management support is crucial and there should be a Senior Responsible Owner for digital continuity who is able to lead, plan and draw the threads together. It is also important to have a multi-disciplinary team on board involving, for example, people from information management, IT and information assurance. Digital continuity needs to be built into people’s roles as business as usual.
  2. Define your digital continuity requirements – you need to understand your information, its value, how you need to use it and the nature of the technical and information environment that supports it.
  3. Assess and manage risks to digital continuity – you can manage the risk of losing digital continuity by setting out appropriate governance and risk management structures, by assigning responsibility for the management of risks to digital continuity and assessing your current level of risk.
  4. Maintain digital continuity – you need to embed digital continuity in your organisation’s business processes and strategies in a way that maintains the usability of your information.

What did the project achieve?

Guidance – step-by-step guidance was produced covering the four stage process described above. The guidance is not just a key tool for UK government departments but has also proved popular with the wider public and private sector and other organisations around the world have bought into the approach.

Training programme – a series of day long courses were held in 2011 and we trained people from a variety of disciplines including information management, IT and information assurance across central government and the wider public sector.

DROID – we developed a free software tool that will help you to automatically profile a wide range of file formats. For example, it will tell you what versions you have, their age and size, and when they were last changed. It can also provide you with data to help you find duplicates.

Procurement framework – we also set up a procurement framework for software tools that could help with managing digital continuity.

Where are we now?

The project itself officially ended in 2011 but the work didn’t stop there. As the project team disbanded the work progressed to business as usual.

  • Digital continuity has entered the lexicon of government and has raised awareness of the importance of managing digital information. We continue to do this through the training and guidance we provide, communication tools such as the blog and our IM newsletter and the events that we hold for government departments.
  • Digital continuity is a recognised and crucial part of our Digital Transfer Programme. Government departments need to be managing their digital information from the outset to enable eventual selection and transfer of digital information that is of historical value to The National Archives.
  • We run three digital continuity training courses per year. It’s an extremely popular course and we consistently receive excellent feedback for it. Since the beginning of the training programme in 2011 we have trained nearly 500 people across UK government.
  • The digital continuity guidance forms a core part of our information management guidance package and will be reviewed and updated as required.
  • DROID continues to be available and is also a key tool in our digital transfer process.
  • The digital continuity procurement framework expired at the beginning of 2014 and is now part of the wider government procurement framework.

A fond farewell

Although not part of the original project team, digital continuity has been an important part of my life for the past few years. As I move to a new and exciting role at The National Archives I am handing the baton over to colleagues. I just know it is going to be in safe hands.

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